Befriending Thugs Who Love The Planet

mike fay

Mike Fay

Mike Fay is a renowned conservationist, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, and a man on a mission to inspire people to care about the planet.

Problem is, when the Society’s mission to save the planet becomes the top priority of any society, people can suffer.

For example, consider Mike’s signature achievement — a huge conservation project in Africa partly underwritten by the National Geographic Society. In 1996, Mike…

flew over the forests of Congo and Gabon and realized there was a vast, intact forest corridor spanning the two countries from the Oubangui to the Atlantic Ocean. In 1997, he walked the entire corridor, over 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers), surveying trees, wildlife, and human impacts on 12 uninhabited forest blocks. Called Megatransect, the project had the objective of bringing to the world’s attention the last pristine forest in central Africa and the need for protection. This work led to a historic initiative [in 2002] by the Gabonese government to create a system of 13 national parks in Gabon, making up some 11,000 square miles (28,500 square kilometers).

Mike’s amazing trek — and his role in Gabon’s “historic initiative” — was documented in National Geographic magazine. It was turned into a National Geographic video and a DVD. It was commemorated in a two-volume boxed set published by National Geographic. The Megatransect warranted all this attention because it was a very big deal: Those 11,000 square miles of new national parkland represents ten percent of Gabon’s total land area. But to save all that pristine wilderness, Mike needed the blessing of El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba — Gabon’s former President-for-Life.

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Omar Bongo, the former President of Gabon

President Bongo was one of two autocrats who dominated Gabon since its independence from France in 1960. Reigning as head of state for 41 years, Bongo holds the record as Africa’s longest-ruling dictator. When he died in Spain last month at the age of 73, he left behind dozens of expensive properties in and around Paris, a $500 million presidential palace, and a grim legacy for Gabon’s 1.5 million people.

According to a 2008 report prepared by U.S. State Department, Gabon’s human rights record has been “poor.” The report cited the “limited ability of citizens to change their government; use of excessive force…; harsh prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; an inefficient judiciary susceptible to government influence; restrictions on the right to privacy; restrictions on freedom of speech, press, association, and movement…; widespread government corruption; violence and societal discrimination against women, persons with HIV/AIDS, and noncitizen Africans; trafficking in persons, particularly children; and forced labor and child labor.”

President Bongo was no Thomas Jefferson.

Which brings us back to Mike Fay and Gabon’s new national parks. In an interview with Women’s Wear Daily in 2006, Mike provided a candid description of why the iron-fisted rule of autocrats, dictators, warlords, and strong men can be a blessing… if you’re a conservationist, an elephant, or a tree:

Women’s Wear Daily: But don’t a lot of the countries you’re working in have dysfunctional governments?

Mike Fay: Yeah, but wherever you go on earth, humans organize themselves in some way. I find often the less national influence there is in the management equation, the more successful you are, because you’re dealing with local warlords. You can go right to the guy in charge and say, “Hey, we’re seeing way too much decrease in vegetation here, way too much willy-nilly burning here, let’s do something about it.” That guy can make that decision right there. He doesn’t have to ask the president, he doesn’t have to ask some minister. I think you can make progress more easily there than you can in this country. That’s for sure. [emphasis added]

In other words: Autocratic thugs care about the planet too. They get stuff done. They “make progress.” They don’t get bogged down “asking” anyone for anything. And while Americans and most Westerners would never tolerate such dictatorial bullying in our own countries, our Society seems to give the Omar Bongos of the world a free pass if they “care about the planet.”

We think this is a huge mistake.

We believe that sustainable conservation grows from sustainable societies that embrace human rights, free speech, and democracy. We want the National Geographic Society to champion those values. And we don’t want our Society to look the other way when dictators profess their love of elephants — and then trample their own people.

Most of all, we wonder:

Why does our Society underwrite and celebrate this sort of “progress”?

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PHOTO UPDATE (21 July 2009):

Bongo and Fay

President Omar Bongo and conservationist Mike Fay

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≡  Photo of Mike Fay: National Geographic Staff Photographer Michael Nichols via NPR
Photo of President Bongo via The Daily Observer
Photo of President Bongo & Mike Fay, by Michael Nichols via nationalgeographic.com

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